PSU position preview: Defensive ends

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
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As part of an ongoing series, NittanyNation will preview a different position leading up to the season opener against Syracuse on Aug. 31. Up today: Defensive ends.

[+] EnlargeDeion Barnes
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Deion Barnes is primed for a big season.
Projected starters: Deion Barnes (2012 stats: 26 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles) and C.J. Olaniyan (2012 stats: 15 tackles, one sack, one start).

Key losses: Sean Stanley (2012 stats: 35 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Pete Massaro (2012 stats: eight tackles, one tackle for loss, five starts).

Next in line: Anthony Zettel will see increased time this season as the top backup in the rotation. He's slightly bigger than Olaniyan (6-4, 258 compared to 6-3, 244) and he finished third on the team in sacks last fall with four.

DE Brad Bars is lost for the season, so that means defensive coordinator John Butler will have to turn to some more inexperienced players to back up those three. Evan Schwan is at the top of the list after redshirting last season, and true freshman Garrett Sickels could also compete for immediate playing time. Sickels was the top defensive recruit of the 2013 class and is already more physically imposing than Schwan.

What to expect: These defensive ends should have no problems with the pass rush. DL coach Larry Johnson has routinely put together lines that finish in the Top 25 in sacks, and both ends are quick, athletic players. Barnes was named Big Ten freshman of the year, and Olaniyan will bat down his fair share of passes this season.

PSU finished 15th in the nation in sacks (34) in 2012, and that number should be pretty similar this season. Barnes should even increase his numbers a bit. That being said, the pass rush is clearly the ends' forte here. Barnes worked on developing his run-stopping skills this offseason because he admitted that was one part of his game that needs to get better.

Last season, the ends struggled at times with keeping runs to the outside bottled up. Still, PSU's run defense wasn't a consistent issue last year -- and it shouldn't be a big one for the ends this year. Run defense just doesn't appear to be as big of a strength as the pass rush.

Recruiting trail: Penn State brought in two defensive ends -- Sickels and Curtis Cothran -- in the 2013 class, so it's not expected to take any in this 2014 class. The 2015 class, however, is another story.

Darius Fullwood (Olney, Md./Good Counsel) impressed the staff during a June camp and already has a PSU offer next to his name. O'Brien spoke to the defensive end on June 8 and already told him the staff could foresee him playing early at PSU. He's No. 225 on the ESPN Junior 300, and he'll be one player the staff keeps a close eye on.

Best-case scenario: Barnes posts Aaron Maybin-like numbers and gains national recognition after a strong rookie debut, while Olaniyan proves he's slightly better than the Massaro-Stanley combination from a year ago.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries plague the line, and Schwan or Sickels are forced to see more action than they usually would. The rush defense becomes the biggest issue of the front seven, and that throws the entire defense off kilter.

Top position question: How good can Barnes be? Well, after just one season, it's pretty clear Barnes has a future in the NFL. He's one of the top overall players on this team, and it's scary to think he has three seasons left.

His parents said, prior to last season, he aimed for 13 sacks. "And when he didn't get that, he was disappointed," his mother said. And reaching double-digit sacks this season is a possibility.

But let's get right to the heart of the question. Barnes has the ability to go down as one of PSU's best pass-rushers of the 2000s. And, if he does reach 10 sacks this season, the record-breaking chatter will undoubtedly start. Courtney Brown holds the school record with 33 sacks; Barnes will need to average nine sacks over the next three seasons -- if he doesn't declare early for the NFL draft -- to tie that record. It's possible.

After all, by Barnes' count, he should've had 10 sacks last year anyway. Regardless of the numbers he winds up with, he's arguably the top pass-rusher in the conference already. And he'll only get better.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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